Over the weekend, Biden administration official Samantha Powers went on CBS Face the Nation. She described the administration’s efforts to get more aid to Ukraine. While doing that, she started talking about the food shortage and skyrocketing fertilizer prices driving the food crisis. She dutifully towed the administration line, blaming everything on Putin.
Then she went the extra mile saying that this is a crisis that shouldn’t go to waste. She wanted farmers to start transitioning to alternative, natural forms of fertilizer. Everything needs to be green, and even farmers have to bow their knees.
It’s the height of arrogance to think a looming food crisis and famine in developing parts of the world is the perfect time for everyone to switch to a Whole Foods mindset. The worst part? Transitioning farmers away from synthetic fertilizer has been tried — it failed miserably.
Sri Lanka tried organic fertilizer
In 2019, Sri Lanka announced a total ban on synthetic fertilizers. The new leadership planned to move everyone to more organic foods and products. The implosion of Sri Lanka’s agriculture was swift and decisive.
Foreign Policy Magazine reports, “The result was brutal and swift. Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450 million worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.”
Sri Lanka had to reverse that decision, but the results were too late. Today, with the added pressures of COVID-19 and more, Sri Lanka is in default and utterly impoverished. The Economist notes, “Food prices, which are up by nearly 20% this year, make up a greater share of consumer spending. Inflation is more likely to spiral out of control.”
The goal is to solve a crisis — not exacerbate it.
Bloomberg sounds alarm on fertilizer
Closer to home, the United States continues to be a giant in agriculture. But even we are not immune the nature. CBS News reports that almost the entire American west is in extreme severe or extreme drought. “The latest government maps show nearly all of the West is in drought, and 95% of California is suffering severe or extreme drought.”
The same day Powers was sitting for her interview, Bloomberg ran an in-depth piece raising alarms over fertilizer prices. Instead of pivoting to alternative forms of fertilizer, farmers have to use less on their crops. “For the first time ever, farmers the world over — all at the same time — are testing the limits of how little chemical fertilizer they can apply without devastating their yields come harvest time.”
What did they find? Early estimates of crop yields show dramatically smaller yields in every crop category. Bloomberg says “the impact could be severe.” We do not have the luxury of pivoting to some Whole Foods, organic-liberal utopia where everything is made of magic and unicorn gas.
Food prices and political instability
A 2011 study found a direct link between the UN Food Price Index and political riots. They conclude, “These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption.”
The higher the price, the more likely the political upheaval. We’ve already witnessed some riots and protests in different places. If current fertilizer issues prevail, we’ll see higher food inflation and more people challenging the legitimacy of their government.
The authors of the study note, “In food importing countries with widespread poverty, political organizations may be perceived to have a critical role in food security. Failure to provide security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system. Once this occurs, the resulting protests can reflect the wide range of reasons for dissatisfaction, broadening the scope of the protest, and masking the immediate trigger of the unrest.”
We need to act now
And they’re right. Food is one of the most basic of needs. If people cannot meet basic needs, they will blame the political system.
The mindset of the Biden administration, not letting a crisis go to waste, is entirely out of touch with reality. A food crisis can represent a fundamental challenge to a political regime’s legitimacy. If people lose faith in their political system over them, they will challenge it.
Food prices and scarcity cannot get laughed away or ignored. And trying to use them to manipulate society is playing with hazardous fire. Congress needs to step in and authorize funds to encourage more planting and cheaper food. The United States can play an important role here.
But if we wait too long, it’ll be too late to plant. We’re already approaching that problem. It’s unclear whether anyone in the White House is thinking that far ahead.